Grand Theft Auto IV was Rockstar’s major, ballyhooed event title of 2008, and it certainly had a next-gen sheen to it. The problem was that there was something missing from it; it lacked the light touch of Grand Theft Auto III. It was so unbearably heavyhanded, both in story and in gameplay, that it drove some open world fans to Saints Row 2.
Red Dead Redemption, in some ways, is just that for Rockstar: redemption. This Western-set game hits all the right notes: it’s beautiful, there are plenty of fun side missions, the characters are stock characters but written with just just the right amount of self-awareness, the voice acting is pitch-perfect, and the main character, John Marston, is a hero (or anti-hero if you play him as such) who engenders a lot of sympathy. Oddly enough for a Rockstar game, there are no name actors – the only recognizable name in the game is Ross Hagen, who is only famous to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans.
The setting of the game is also intriguing. It takes place in 1911, the end of the era of the classic Old West, which is treated as both the romanticized adventure setting and as the deconstructed post-Unforgiven Western. The writing is able to pull off clichéd dialog with just the barest hint of irony – that is, when it isn’t make broad comedic strokes. The story is standard post-Civil War Western drama, in which our hero’s wife and child are being held ransom by a corrupt federal agent to get him to kill his ex-partners from his outlaw past, the sort of tale Clint Eastwood would spin like The Outlaw Josey Wales. The game near the end offers a few truly emotional, tear-jerking moments.
The player, using a Karma system, can choose to play John as a repentant hero or a bleak, vicious anti-hero. John can choose to shoot pesky annoyances dead, or subdue wanted criminals with a lasso and hand them over to lawmen – it’s up to you. Regardless of their actions, John becomes more and more famous. Clothes and items can enhance John’s rep – as well as give special “powers” such as the ability to cheat in poker. Certain items are only available to John according to Karma as well, like a black steed who only is available to the dirtiest, most foul of players.
The main story is engaging, and hits that difficulty sweet spot perfectly, with missions that are easy enough that you never feel like throwing your controller against the wall, but difficult enough to maintain enough of a challenge to keep your interest in the game. There are also plenty of side quests (some of which involve bizarre situations such as cannibalism or necrophilia) and challenges (which include stuff like killing cougars and skinning them or picking flowers). That doesn’t include spur-of-the-moment challenges in which someone may right up to you and beg you to save their friend from being lynched, or stop a disgruntled john from stabbing a whore to death.
Some of the activities stand out as well; the game features the best parlor games in a videogame. Playing poker or blackjack is lovingly rendered in-game and never breaks the suspension of belief – John will sit down receive cards, while the player has to direct him to look his own cards and at others, all the while making comments and chattering with other players. You can play other games like Liar’s Dice and horseshoes as well.
The game is absolutely gorgeous to look at, as well. The Joshua trees, the hardscrabble, the catci – they are all lovingly reproduced. The terrain varies widely as well, from desert to plains to swamp – there are some scenes, such as the river dividing the United States from Mexico, are breathtakingly gorgeous, especially if the Sun (which rises and sets normally in-game) is in the right place. Since there are fewer pedestrians and vehicles than there are in Grand Theft Auto IV, character models are far more detailed than you’d normally expect from an open-world game.
There isn’t much more to say about the game. There are only two games that have been released that are locks to earn Game of the Year nominations by the end of 2010. One is Mass Effect 2 – the other is Red Dead Redemption. This is a must-own title for any open-world fans, and those who seldom purchase Grand Theft Auto titles will be immensely pleased with this game.